In early 1984, IBM released its first home computer, the IBM PCjr. Commodore won that battle handily. But in late 1984, Tandy released its idea of a a PCjr-done-right, the Tandy 1000. When it comes to the Tandy 1000 vs Commodore 64, Commodore didn’t do as well. The Tandy 1000 eventually overtook the Commodore 64 to become the best-selling computer in the United States.
The Tandy 1000
The Tandy 1000 was basically an IBM PCjr clone that fixed IBM’s most egregious mistakes. It had 16-color high resolution graphics like the PCjr. It also had the Texas Instruments sound chip that had been used in the TI-99/4A and Coleco Adam computers and Colecovision game console. And Sierra On-Line, having created a line of DOS games that used PCjr graphics and sound, was more than eager to sell their games in Radio Shack stores.
With competitive sound and graphics and the ability to run most IBM PC productivity titles, it was a compelling home computer. You could bring work home with you. Your kids could do homework on it using the included Deskmate software or virtually any word processor that ran on the IBM PC. And Radio Shack had a nice assortment of interesting games that played well on it.
And Tandy fixed the biggest problems with the PCjr. It had a higher degree of compatibility with the IBM PC. The keyboard was a big improvement over even the later PCjr keyboard, let alone the original one. And while the specifics varied, all of the Tandy 1000 models were more expandable than the PCjr. The initial model had a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 CPU and ran MS-DOS. Later models had faster processors.
The case for the Tandy 1000
David H. Ahl, the influential editor of Creative Computing, predicted the IBM PCjr would be a raging success but lamented that it was a mediocre computer. Any Amiga or Atari ST fan would understand what he meant. The PCjr flopped, but the Tandy 1000 became exactly what Ahl expected.
It was a safe choice. If you had a computer at the office, there was a reasonable chance it was an IBM PC or compatible, so it could run the same software. Its software library was comparable in size to that of the Commodore 64, but the serious productivity software was much more powerful. It couldn’t do arcade-style graphics as well as the C-64, but it excelled at adventure games like Sierra’s Kings Quest series and Ultima. Some of those titles were available for the C-64 as well, but not all, and they were more pleasant on the Tandy because of its faster disk drive.
The cost varied but was a reasonable value. You could get a single-drive all-in-one model with a color monitor for around $1,000. A desktop model with a color monitor ran closer to $1,500. The price was competitive with most PC clones but had better graphics and much better sound.
And it was easy to buy. In the 1980s when Radio Shack was at its peak, Radio Shack said 90% of its customers lived within five minutes of a location. That’s not the same as 90% of the population living within 5 minutes of a location but it sounds close. Radio Shack stores were as easy to find as a McDonald’s in the early 1980s, with around 6,300 locations.
And right as the Tandy 1000 came out, Commodore was having a disagreement with its largest retailer, Kmart. Numerous retailers continued to carry the C-64, but none was as numerous as Radio Shack.
The Commodore 64
Commodore introduced the C-64 in 1982 at a price of $595. By the time the Tandy 1000 came out, it was selling for about $200. A bare C-64 wasn’t very usable, but a disk drive cost around $200. A lot of people bought a C-64 and 1541 disk drive and connected it to a 13-inch TV. A decked-out C-64 setup with a color monitor, two disk drives, a printer and a modem cost around $1,100.
So it had a cost advantage over the Tandy 1000. But as you added more to both machines, the cost advantage wasn’t as great. And more software took advantage of the upgrades on the Tandy than on the C-64. C-64 software was very much a lowest common denominator affair.
The C-64’s sound was quite a bit better, but that was the only technical advantage it held. The 64 had a lot of games and a lot fewer productivity titles like word processors and spreadsheets. But the titles were good enough for writing letters and doing homework.
The C-64 had a slower 8-bit CPU, limited to 64K of memory. Commodore later released memory expansion for it, but little software used it. Commodore’s disk drive was painfully slow. One of the most popular Commodore upgrades was a fast load cartridge. The C-64 was vulnerable, but IBM kept its price too high.
The C-64 was the right machine for 1984, and that’s why it was the best selling computer in the United States from 1983 to about 1986. It continued to sell surprisingly well until around 1991. But what computer overtook it? Commodore hoped it would be its Amiga computer. But it wasn’t the Amiga.
Commodore 64 vs Tandy 1000: The machines’ fate
In mid-1985, Commodore released the 128, which featured more memory and a faster disk drive. IBM discontinued the PCjr in March 1985. Competing with the C-64 was hard enough. The 128, with its upgrades, was going to be too much. All told, the Commodore 64 lasted a decade-plus on the market, with the 128 at its side for about five of those years, and they sold about 12,350,000 units total.
The Tandy 1000 sold well immediately. Tandy didn’t disclose sales figures, but stated they were selling them just as fast as they could make them in 1985 and 1986. And by 1987, the Tandy 1000 was outselling the Commodore 64. It didn’t sell as many machines total because of the shorter lifetime of the machine, but it did exactly what Tandy expected it to do. Sales declined sharply around 1990 because the PC architecture had moved on and the Tandy 1000 was largely obsolete by then.
The computer you’re reading this on has more in common with the Tandy 1000 than with the Commodore 64. The IBM PC architecture was easier to swap new processors into. That’s why IBM PC clones eventually overtook the industry, and Commodore went out of business in 1994.
By any reasonable measure, the Tandy 1000 was a raging success. But like the C-64, it was either too successful or the decision makers didn’t understand why it was successful. Tandy wasn’t able to follow up on it, and they actually ended up leaving the computer manufacturing business in the summer of 1993, a few months before Commodore did.
Commodore 64 vs Tandy 1000 today
If you want a hobby machine today, you can have fun with either machine. A TV makes a reasonable display for a C-64, as does anything with composite inputs. A C-64 connected to a TV with some kind of mass storage won’t take much space.
The Tandy 1000 can be as svelte or as monstrous as you want. A Tandy 1000EX or HX with an internal mass storage solution probably takes less space than a C-64, and a TV makes an OK display for it if you can’t find a CGA-compatible solution.
Which system has the more interesting software library depends on your own personal preference. The 64’s software library is simpler by virtue of being a less powerful machine. But both systems have more software available than you can reasonably expect to thoroughly explore in a lifetime.